Brendan Benson – I Learned That I Know Nothing

Ian Maleney talks analogue recording, playing Irish pubs and avoiding country music in Nashville with Brendan Benson.

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Brendan Benson has had quite the career to date. From major label beginnings in the 90s through his jaunts with Jack White and the rest of the Raconteurs, to living today in Nashville as a fully independent artist working totally on his own terms. It’s not always been the easiest road but the Michigan born man’s subtle take on classic Beatlesy pop and alt-Americana remains a strong calling card.

While Benson’s last album, My Old Familiar Friend, was a long and tumultuous process, with super producer Gil Norton at the helm, his newest solo endevour, What Kind Of World, was released in April and it once again features a comfortable Benson working in the mode he knows best.

So, your new album, What Kind Of World, was recorded all to tape, 100% analogue. Why did you decide to work that way this time?
Well I think it sounds better. I think all my records have been done that way. It’s never even crossed my mind to not do it on to tape. I don’t know what other people do and I’m sure it’s fun to do records entirely in Pro Tools or digital on the computer, but it seems like that trend is changing or it’s definitely becoming more trendy to record on to tape. So I think people are just getting hip to it and asking these kinds of questions. For me, I’ve done it all along to tape. Of course, with post-production stuff like last minute overdubs or whatever, it all eventually ended up in Pro-Tools for me because I mixed it and I didn’t want to be in a studio again for mixing, it’s just costly.

You also went back to producing it yourself. How did that feel after the experience of the last record? Was there more pressure on you?
It was actually nice. The last record, My Old Familiar Friend, I did with Gil Norton and that was pretty new for me. I hadn’t worked with that kind of producer before. In fact, I’ve done it mostly myself all along. I mean, I’ve worked with people like Jason Falkner and people have helped out for sure, but working with Gil, that was an officially “Produced by Gil Norton” record. I can’t say that I loved it the whole time! It was tough for me. Not to say that I’m a control freak but I don’t know, I think he and I just disagreed on some things. So anyhow, I’m making my record this time, doing it myself. It was nice getting back to the way I like to do it. Part of that, how I like to do things, is surround myself with great players. Players who have ideas and creative thinking. They help out a lot and I just take all the credit in the end!

Well Nashville is probably the place to be for great session players. What’s the city like to live in?
I love it! It’s a music city, the industry is here. It’s the country music industry but nevertheless it’s an industry. The resources are here, the studios, the players, all the things you need really, without being a big city like New York or Los Angeles. I prefer the small town feel to live in. It’s great, got all the trappings of an industry town without the rat race or hustle.

Does the country music focus ever get on your nerves?
You know, people think of Nashville as a bunch of dudes walking around with cowboy hats and cowboy boots and stuff, country music stars and all that. I’ve been here about seven years or something and I hardly ever see that kind of thing. You can live here and avoid it very easily. And it’s not like something to be avoided, maybe that’s the wrong choice of words, but you could never see it, you could never know it existed I guess.

Despite living in an industry town, you’re avoiding the industry more than ever with this album by releasing it on your own label. What prompted you to get into that aspect of the business?
I was just tired. Every record I’ve made, I’ve had to find a label and that takes a long time. It’s a whole new group of people who are saying all the same things. I guess I just got fed up. I was also tired because I’d make and produce projects and they’d just sit around, projects on major labels or sometime, and they won’t do anything or they wouldn’t come out. I just thought, I want to change this and this was the perfect way to do it. I have the best partner, Emily White, she’s the brains behind the whole thing. I don’t know the first thing about running a label or a business but I know what sounds good and I know how to make it sound good so that’s what I do and it’s fun. Now I don’t have to stress about who is going to put my new album out and at the same time, I can make records for my friends or people I like and put them out. I want to make it a big thing. I’m aiming high with this label.

You’ve worked with all kinds of labels, both major and their opposite, in the past. Do you think you’ve learned much from those experiences?
I think I’ve learned what not to do. I don’t know. I think I’ve certainly gained some knowledge over the years. In the end though, it’s anybody’s guess really, what makes something successful or popular or profitable. Or maybe it’s not and there are people who know how to do that really well. After all though, I just have to trust my influences. Chances are, if I like something then there’s a whole other group of people who are going to like it too. Good things, undeniably great things, can’t be… denied! That’s the most retarded sentence ever. I guess to answer your question, I don’t know what I’ve learned. I learned that I know nothing.

Last time you were in Ireland, you did a tour which visited a lot of tiny pubs all around the country. What was that like?
I loved it. I had a great time, I brought my wife and son who was not even one year old at the time. Yeah, we just made it a family thing. We just got in a van together and played these tiny pubs in the middle of seemingly nowhere! But it was really interesting. I learned how to play the acoustic guitar finally.

What were the crowds like?
I didn’t expect to see any crowds in a lot of those places but sure enough they would come flocking. It was the strangest thing. We’d show up at a gig or a pub and there’d be chickens running around and there wouldn’t be a house for miles but come show time, we’d pack them in. It was the weirdest thing.

Has doing that kind of tour, factoring in your family life, made you think differently at all about the usual musical lifestyle? Do you feel more like working closer to home now?
Yeah, I’ve always been pointed in that direction but definitely having Declan has expedited that goal which is to eventually just be a producer and maybe score some films, work on music for movies and TV. I just don’t want to miss out on my son’s childhood so I can’t really hit the road like that anymore.

Brendan Benson plays The Button Factory on Thursday 25th May. What Kind Of World is out now on Lojinx.

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